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Enter the evangelicals

U.S. fundamentalist groups have a foot in Canada's political door, and they're pushing it open

Douglas Todd

Vancouver Sun

Saturday, July 30, 2005

CREDIT: Peter Battistoni, Vancouver Sun

Ron Dart, political science professor at the University College of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford: 'U.S. evangelicals have helped create a Republican Christianity in Canada.'

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American evangelist Stephen Bennett declares he's willing to endure "persecution" in Canada to preach his message that homosexual acts are a mortal sin that should be illegal.

The famous U.S. preacher --a married family man who considers himself "ex-gay" after renouncing his earlier promiscuous homosexual lifestyle -- was the keynote speaker before more than 250 Canadians this summer at a $100-a-ticket fundraiser.

Even though Bennett's Canadian evangelical allies warned him against bringing most of his anti-homosexuality tracts to Canada because they might earn him a jail sentence under the country's hate-speech laws, it didn't stop Bennett from joining a widespread U.S.-based campaign against Canada's proposed same-sex marriage legislation.

"I spoke [in Canada] for nearly an hour, openly and freely as an American," Bennett wrote in his recent weekly column, headlined O Canada, which was distributed to millions of people through popular Canadian and U.S. evangelical websites.

"I will not be silenced," said Bennett, who believes homosexuality is a moral choice, not a genetic predisposition. "The truth is not hate speech. Let them come in here now and arrest me."

The cross-border distribution of Bennett's fiery speech is just one small illustration of the way dozens of powerful conservative Christian networks in the U.S. are helping shape Canada's cultural and political landscape.

Many U.S. evangelicals have been galvanized by recent developments in Canada -- particularly Parliament's July vote in favour of same-sex marriage, but also by Canadian political efforts to legalize marijuana and maintain wide access to abortion, as well as Ottawa's refusal to join the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Scholars and pollsters who track the links between conservatives in the two countries say the American religious right has gained more clout in Canada in recent years, particularly by bolstering right-wing elements in the Conservative party.

Big-name American Christian conservatives are warning the faithful that what is happening in Canada could soon infect the United States.

"The U.S. religious right certainly sees Canada as a place where liberalism runs amok," says Bruce Foster, head of the political science department at Calgary's Mount Royal College.

"And they're saying if Canada is going to hell in a moral handbasket, it will happen in the U.S. It's the slippery-slope argument," says Foster, whose PhD explored the link between U.S. and Canadian religious groups.

Roger Robins, a political scientist at Marymount College in California, says the numerous American evangelicals trying to sway the Canadian scene want to remain below the public's radar.

"There's so much interaction between religious conservatives in the two countries. There are so many cross-border networks. So many groups," says Robins, a former Mennonite pastor who has worked in Canada and specializes in North American religious politics.

"The Americans are smart enough to know not to be seen as too pushy. And Canadians also don't want to be viewed as clones of American evangelicals,"

Some of the more important Christian organizations that have direct or indirect cross-border links, say the scholars, include Focus on the Family, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Real Women, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, Campus Crusade for Christ, Youth for Christ, various Mennonite and charismatic denominations, and dozens of Canadian evangelical colleges that are well populated with American students and faculty.

Professor Ron Dart, an active Anglican who teaches political science in the heart of B.C.'s Lower Fraser Valley Bible Belt, says there's no doubt the values of the powerful U.S. religious right "have infiltrated the Canadian soul and psyche" -- especially in Alberta.

Although the emphasis of conservative Americans on Canada is now more intense, Dart says they have been effectively shifting the Canadian political and religious scene for more than 20 years.

"U.S. evangelicals have helped create a Republican Christianity in Canada," says Dart, who teaches at the University College of the Fraser Valley, a campus that he says is frequently visited by U.S. conservative Christian groups.

Giant global evangelical organizations such as Focus on the Family, Dart says, draw in millions of people by offering advice on how to raise children and warning about the dangers of homosexuality. "Then, before you know it," Dart says, "you're into Republicanism and U.S. nationalism and imperialism."

To be fair, Dart and other scholars emphasize that Canadian liberals and homosexual-rights activists also work with allies in the U.S., who can also show signs of their own ideology.

But the religion scholars say the size, wealth and sophistication of the U.S. Christian right gives it unprecedented influence north of the border (not to mention around the world, particularly in Africa and Latin America).

U.S.-style evangelicalism and its Republican values have been entering Canada at three levels, Dart says: Through the "crude" methods of vociferous pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter; through "populist" organizations such as Focus on the Family, and through "intellectual" figures such as Michael Novak (who is connected with Canada's Centre for Cultural Renewal).

More than one in three Americans consider themselves "evangelicals," and most are Republican, according to polls.

Tories and evangelicals

In the 2004 U.S. election, a growing percentage of evangelicals -- 78 per cent -- voted to send George W. Bush, himself an evangelical, back into the president's office.

In contrast, less than 10 per cent of the Canadian population attends an evangelical Protestant denomination, such as a Baptist, Alliance or Pentecostal church.

Yet Ipsos-Reid pollsters say 51 per cent of these core Canadian evangelicals voted for the Conservative party in 2004, a rate almost twice as high as the general Canadian population.

(To round out the 2004 Canadian evangelical vote: 32 per cent cast a ballot for the Liberals, eight per cent voted NDP, two per cent went for the Bloc Quebecois and seven per cent for all others, including the Christian Heritage Party.)

However, evangelical strength in Canada may be gradually growing and be larger than it first appears. Broadly speaking, Grenville says, 19 per cent of the Canadian population could be counted as "evangelical."

If you define "evangelicals" as those who are highly active in their churches, believe Christ is the only route to salvation, the Bible is the inspired word of God and it is crucial to have a conversion experience, Grenville said, you could add a portion of mainline Protestants (four per cent of the Canadian population) and Catholics (another seven per cent) to the country's evangelical total.

Grenville, who says he personally fits the definition of an "evangelical" in a mainline Protestant denomination, says debate over Bush's global agenda and the same-sex issue has "become a kind of potent combination to bring about the politicization of the evangelical population in Canada."

It's a mixed blessing, Grenville says.

On the positive side, he says Canadian evangelicals are starting to realize they represent a significant chunk of the Canadian electorate "and they should have a voice. They're trying it on for size."

On the negative side, Grenville regrets what he calls evangelicals' "narrow" emphasis on same-sex marriage.

"It ignores the rest of the gospel, which is about loving God and your neighbour and speaking up for the vulnerable. The focus on homosexuality is eating away at evangelicals' political capital in Canada. They're being perceived as a bunch of haters."

Even though scholars say evangelical Protestants form the heart of the religious right in both countries, most maintain there are subtle differences.

But that clearly hasn't stopped religious conservatives on both sides of the border from joining forces.

Canada's shift to the right

The U.S. religious right, financed in part by billionaire philanthropists such as Howard Ahmanson and others, champions a "laundry list" of issues in the U.S. and around the world --but particularly in Canada, Dart says.

Although its front-line causes are opposition to homosexuality and abortion, Dart says the religious right in both countries also tends to be pro-death-penalty, strong on law and order, big on free trade, anti-euthanasia, advocates of private schooling, soft on the environment, hawkish on the military and leery of social spending.

"American evangelicals are a powerful force. They've helped create a big shift to the right in Canada in the past two decades," Dart says.

Most notably, Dart argues, the influence of U.S. evangelicals has slowly transformed the once-centrist Progressive Conservative party into what is now called the Conservative Party, which Dart maintains should be more aptly called "The Republican Party of Canada."

The Progressive Conservatives of the past, Dart said, made up a diverse and centrist party, which included many Canadian nationalists wary of the power of the American military-industrial complex.

The former PC party started the CBC, firmly supported public education and believed sexuality was largely a private matter, says Dart, author of The Canadian High Tory Tradition.

Canada's current Conservative party, led by Albertan evangelical Stephen Harper, mirrors the U.S. Republican Party, Dart said -- including in the way it not only opposes same-sex marriage, but supports the Iraq war and urges closer economic and security ties with the U.S.

In his new book, Evangelicals and the Continental Divide (McGill-Queen's Press), Atlantic Baptist University professor Sam Reimer says Canadian evangelicals are more like American evangelicals than the Canadians want to believe.

Reimer's extensive surveys also show Canadian core evangelicals have become more conservative, like their American allies, since 1975 -- particularly in wanting restrictions against abortion, divorce, pre-marital sex and pornography.

There is also tight agreement among evangelicals in Canada and the U.S. on key conservative Protestant convictions -- such as that the only way to gain eternal life is through belief in Christ (virtually unanimous in both countries), the Bible should be read literally (four out of five in both countries agree) and the world will end in the battle of Armageddon (two of three in both countries agree).

Despite the converging theological beliefs among North American evangelicals, scholars who have devoted their careers to the subject say there are some subtle religion-based political differences between the U.S. and Canada.

Evangelicals and the Continental Divide, for instance, shows that core Canadian evangelicals are somewhat more likely than American evangelicals to want to protect the environment, more likely to believe the national government has a role to play in combatting poverty, more inclined to question free trade and somewhat less likely to be opposed to voting for an atheist politician.

What's the overarching religious difference between Americans and Canadians?

Most Canadians, including evangelicals, don't feel comfortable thinking of themselves, as many Americans do, as blessed citizens of God's chosen nation.

Professor Mark Noll, a celebrated historian of North American religion at Wheaton College in Illinois, says Canadians never developed the idea they were God's chosen people because the country was co-founded by anglophone Protestants and francophone Catholics.

You can't claim your country is chosen by God if you suspect the Christians who populate the rest of the land may not be bona fide, says Noll, whom Time Magazine recently named one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.

The Chosen People theme gives American Christians more reason than Canadians, Noll says, to believe it's their unique role in history to culturally colonize the planet, since many equate the American political way of life with the Christian life.

Noll also argues that subtle differences have emerged between Canadian and American politics because Catholicism makes up the largest and strongest Christian denomination in Canada, while Protestant evangelicalism is dominant in the U.S.

Noll argues that most Canadians developed a Catholic-rooted concern for the "common good," while Americans have picked up an evangelical emphasis on individual liberty, personal salvation and suspicion about the power of government.

An Ipsos-Reid poll, for instance, found only 16 per cent of Canadian Catholics voted for the Conservative Party (which stresses individualistic values) compared to 55 per cent of Canadians voting Liberal, eight per cent NDP and 15 per cent Bloc (parties that put a little more emphasis on cooperative ventures).

Given the American Christian emphasis on the importance of religion, Foster say it's no accident most top-flight politicians in the U.S., Republicans and Democrats, for the past several decades have been evangelical Christians who pepper their speeches with "God bless America."

But that's not the case in Canada, where every prime minister since Lester Pearson has been at least nominally Catholic and most other politicians keep their religion, or lack thereof, mainly to themselves.

Although there are exceptions, Foster says, Canadian evangelicals also tend to be less politically aggressive than their U.S. counterparts. "They do their politics differently down there."

In addition to being less ideologically devoted to capitalism and U.S. expansionism, Foster says Canada's conservative Protestants don't generally try to target individual candidates for moral demonization and character assassination. Many Canadians, he says, find such attack-tactics extremely distasteful.

The red flag of homosexuality

In his column O Canada, American evangelist Stephen Bennett's fury about what he labels Canadian mistreatment of conservative Christians is typical of much of the cross-border traffic in religious politics.

For one thing, the evangelist's staunch defence of his right to condemn homosexuality was highlighted as a feature essay on linked popular websites in Canada and the U.S.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, which represents almost all the country's evangelical denominations, distributed the O Canada piece, cross-referencing it with the United States' American Family Association, which claims 2.3 million members.

The O Canada opinion piece is also representative since it fixated on the red flag of homosexuality, Robins says. Since Canada's endorsement of homosexual marriage marks a break from past cultural norms, Robins says it shouldn't be underestimated as a potent "common cause" rallying issue.

"The same-sex legislation represents a historic departure for Canada," Robins says.

Bennett's O Canada column specifically championed the case of conservative B.C. Christian Chris Kempling, a public-school teacher-counsellor from Quesnel who was temporarily suspended after writing letters to the local paper saying homosexuality was a dangerous condition that could be cured.

Although B.C. courts upheld school board arguments that Kempling's views were discriminatory toward homosexual students, Bennett argued the decisions displayed how the Canadian "establishment" was out to ruin Kempling.

The 'persecution motif'

Bennett said his appreciative audience (brought together by noted Ontario Rev. Tristan Emmanuel, who has been busily making sure many evangelicals have been nominated to key Conservative Party ridings) gave him a standing ovation for shaking up "extremely reserved" Canadian Christians.

Rogers, the California-based political scientist, says Bennett's speech, which cited how evangelicals are being made into victims in Canada and the U.S., fits perfectly into the "persecution motif" frequently adopted by militant North American evangelicals.

Promoting a "siege mentality" can serve to mobilize otherwise passive supporters, says Rogers, adding that it's a technique that can also be used by liberals and pro-homosexuality activists.

Like the O Canada column, a similar foray by American evangelicals into Canadian life came earlier in a widely distributed opinion piece titled, Pray for Canada, Pray for America.

Written by prominent U.S. evangelist Alan Sears, the column attacked Canada's hate-speech laws, saying their acceptance north of the border means they could soon become a reality in U.S. courts, which often cite international law as precedents.

The piece by Sears, head of the influential Arizona-based Alliance Defence Fund, also linked to the website of the B.C. arm of Real Women Canada. Sears praised Real Women Canada for being "very American" in the way it forthrightly opposed Canada's new hate-speech laws, which he suggested could lead to the acceptance of not only homosexuality, but pedophilia and sadism.

Such international connections, Foster says, suggest Canada's evangelical political activists don't always need to belong to the same organization or accept formal political help from Americans to challenge the Canadian political scene.

"Real Women Canada is doing the job for American evangelical activists," Foster says. "They're being an early warning-system for the religious right."

Although the strength of U.S.-style religious conservatism is growing in Canada, both Rogers and Dart want to clarify that cultural-political pressure does not completely flow one way.

Since most Canadian religious conservatives generally don't display the hard-edged militancy of those in the U.S., Rogers says, "American evangelicals are often a little suspicious of those in Canada."

Dart cites how American students who study at evangelical schools such as B.C.'s Trinity Western University and Regent College are often shocked when they realize many Canadians evangelicals "don't accept the American agenda -- that God and the flag are one."

After the conservative American Protestants get over their initial upset, Dart says, some end up appreciating Canada's skepticism about whether it's wise to make "kissing cousins" out of Jesus and Bush.

"Canada plays a very significant role in moderating American extremism -- which brooks no opposition -- on a political, religious and practical level," Dart says.

Although Canadians, including conservative Christians, often find themselves defending themselves against American cultural domination, Dart assures Canadians they sometimes get in their own counter-punches.

"The beaver," he says, "is also capable of fighting back."


Politics & Prayer

© The Vancouver Sun 2005


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